In a summer where sequels are surprisingly proving to be not just the best of the season but the best of the year (ie. "Shrek 2", "Harry Potter 3"), "Spider-Man 2" manages to continue the trend by delivering one of the film highlights of the season.
Yet there's something a bit off about this second adventure of the webslinger, a shift in the franchise's direction which some will applaud but others will be left a little perturbed by. The first film was a tour-de-force, a breathtaking comic book action movie with great characters, fun action and a real keen sense of its origins. Yet after a near perfect 'origin storyline' for its first act, up jumped a few nagging faults - mostly to do with the not so well-realised Green Goblin villain which consisted of either Willem Dafoe overacting or a guy in a green suit and Spidey having conversations without any of their features moving (as a result it felt kind of Power Rangers at times). The score and CG were also a little disappointing.
The good news is the sequel fixes many of those problems - the action and villain are better in almost every way, the dynamic between Peter and Octavius both in human and superhero form is great, the effects are a lot better overall, the score hasn't improved much but it has its nice quirks like a little tip to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in a scene guaranteed to generate a smile. The bad news is while the flawed elements of the first film have been fixed, other elements which worked well have been altered. The result is, much like last month's "Troy", short of one or two highlights I found myself nearly falling asleep several times during the first hour of this film.
Between a great opening action sequence involving pizza delivery to the Doc Ock origin scene, there's literally 40 minutes of the first hour of Peter essentially whinging about how his responsibility to the hero mantle is destroying his personal life on financial, social and romantic levels. In essence one's enjoyment of the first hour will depend heavily upon one's feelings of the actors who spend long amounts of time staring off into space teary eyed or bitterly complaining about their lot in the world (apparently having superpowers and being good-looking are a real curse). It's standard talky character drama which is fine but Raimi seems asleep at the wheel at times and so whereas the first film was a brilliant example of pacing, much of this grinds to a halt for long periods and characters like 'Ock' appear and disappear with little explanation.
The end result is essentially two movies struggling to co-exist, one a morose "Dawson's Creek" style teen romance drama and the other a great big superhero action movie. They gel better than expected but they never truly mix. Girls are probably going to get a lot more out of than the last one, but the core teen male audience which the film is designed for aren't going to find this particularly compelling even with the great action scenes - there's just too much useless filler at times, especially in the early parts. Much of it is designed to show Parker's human side, a feat which sometimes works (the lack of webbing due to stress), but at other times his stubborn attitude is so frustrating that even in the comic book world it stretches the limits of credibility.
Laughs try and buoy up some scenes such as a cute moment in an elevator and little in-jokes, but it's not enough to counter act the drag of all the self-pity going on. There's a resemblance in a way to "Batman Returns", an admittedly more mature and well-crafted movie than its predecessor but not as widely appealing or engagingly fun and in some ways kind of depressing. "Spider-Man 2" in many ways is an even more mood downer than 'Returns' was (and no performance in Spidey 2 can begin to approach Pfieffer's Catwoman).
Just when one is about to write this off as a solid but average escapade, the last act of the film comes back with a vengeance - the action ramps up to one of the truly best sequences I've seen on screen in a long time (the tower/train bit), and the drama finally turns from wandering self-doubt and pointless conversations to characters actually becoming assertive and making big decisions about their future that will forever change the way they interact with each other. If much of the first two-thirds of the film was about going through the motions, the last 40 minutes is the real payoff and sets up what promises to be one hell of a third film.
So while the script is a little problematic and the pacing off, much of the film's assets are as good as, if not better than ever. Maguire and Dunst in particular shine far more than they did in the first movie, Molina makes for a splendid bad guy - purpose driven but not over the top, and Harris as the Aunt gets some great stuff too. Franco has a bit more range this time, but feels a little awkward with some scenes. JK Simmons is pitch perfect again as J. Jonah Jameson, but while the character gets more screen time he's nowhere near as fun as his turn in the first film. Gillies is fine as the hunky new love of Kirsten's life, but never gets much development so we don't really get to explore much about him. Dylan Baker, Bruce Campbell and Donna Murphy are a delight in small roles.
With much of the same production team too, the film not only fits design wise perfectly with the last one, but nicely expands into other areas. Raimi deliciously tips a hat to his "Evil Dead" days with a very violent and graphic sequence in a hospital. The look of Doc Ock is superbly realised, the arms element used to great effect. The swinging through the buildings trick feels and looks far more real this time. There's also a great cameo at the end which leads into an easy setup for Film #3. There's plenty of praise to be said about "Spider-Man 2" which when it's good is great, but unlike the first where one walked out jazzed - this time you'll come out somewhat morose. It's not as exciting as the first or the likes of say "X2" or the first two "Batman" films, but overall its a solid superhero movie with some memorable moments.